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Newsline 19 July 2013

The NSS campaigns to ensure the upholding and respect for human rights and equality. You can help with this. We need the support of people like you to ensure the success of this sort of work and our overall campaign, in its various forms, to bring about a just, equal and cohesive secular society.

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Same-Sex Marriage legalised in England and Wales

Same-Sex Marriage legalised in England and Wales

News | Thu, 18 Jul 2013

The Same-Sex Marriage Bill has been given royal assent and is now law. However, the first marriage is unlikely to take place before next summer as the Government has promised an inquiry into pension inequality and other matters.

Extremism fears prompt Government to scupper plans for Islamic free school

Extremism fears prompt Government to scupper plans for Islamic free school

News | Mon, 15 Jul 2013

The Department for Education has scuppered plans for an Islamic free school in Halifax after alarm was raised over its links with a local Islamic centre.

UN marks “Malala Day”

UN marks “Malala Day”

News | Fri, 12 Jul 2013

Malala Yousafzai, the inspirational and courageous schoolgirl from Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban in October for campaigning in support of female education, has addressed the United Nations in New York.

Muslim man who ritually slaughtered goats didn’t know it was against the law

Muslim man who ritually slaughtered goats didn’t know it was against the law

News | Thu, 18 Jul 2013

A Somali refugee who improvised a halal abattoir in a private house where he killed four goats, has been sentenced to a 12 months in jail suspended for two years by an Irish court.

Human rights are for humans, not for ideologies

Human rights are for humans, not for ideologies

Opinion | Mon, 15 Jul 2013

A Jewish man has won an employment tribunal case for racial and religious discrimination after his employer made derogatory remarks about "Yids" and suggested that he would like to lock up and gas Jews.

Darren Feldman was bullied and abused by his manager because of his religion. He was driven out of his job by the boorish and racist attitudes of his manager.

He quite rightly used the law to gain some redress, and the equality regulations brought some kind of justice to him.

That is what the Equality Act is supposed to do. It is there to protect individuals like Mr Feldman from being persecuted and disadvantaged because of — among other things — their religion.

What it is not there for is to protect religious belief.

And that is where Mr Feldman's case differs so fundamentally from that of Lillian Ladele, the Islington registrar who wouldn't perform civil partnerships for gay couples.

Ms Ladele was not being bullied because of her religion, she was using her beliefs to create a confrontation with her employer that she hoped would result in Christianity being given a special status in her workplace. Her employer was simply asking her to carry out her duties in their entirety, just as her colleagues had to do.

This was not about her rights as an individual, it was about the right of her religion to be given special consideration that other ideologies cannot and must not have.

But human rights are for individual humans, they are not for ideologies or theologies. The Equality Act was put in place to protect individuals, not their beliefs.

If beliefs are protected, then who will defend individuals who contradict or fail to abide by those beliefs?

The evangelical groups who have driven this push for special rights for Christians in the workplace have tried to argue that a person is entitled to manifest their religion freely (which they are). But they want to redefine this right into the ability to take rights away from other people. Much to their frustration, the European Convention on Human Rights expressly forbids this.

Article 9 reads:

Freedom of thought, conscience and religion

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, and to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

2. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The right to practice religion is guaranteed in every human rights charter ever written, but it is never an unrestricted right. It can't be or human rights would quickly become meaningless in the light of religious persecution of all kinds of people and minorities of whom the church or mosque didn't happen to approve. Unmarried mothers? Divorcees who want to remarry? Infidels and atheists?

The other day I was taking part in a debate on a Muslim TV channel with a young man who could not grasp this concept. Why couldn't there be an exception for Lillian Ladele, he wanted to know. Why were her rights to her religion less important than the rights of homosexuals? Why couldn't an exception have been made for her so that her religious conscience would be clear?

I asked how he would feel if a registrar was a member of the EDL who objected to dealing with Muslims? Would it be OK to make an exception for them? Would it be OK to exempt a racist who refused to deal with black people on the basis of their 'beliefs'? Or was it just gay people who deserved such degrading treatment? And just religion that deserves these special exemptions?

He was momentarily flummoxed but quickly went round in a circle and started to ask the same questions again.

The idea that human rights are there to protect individuals and not organisations or ideologies, is difficult for some people to grasp. But grasp it they must, for human rights are too important to be sacrificed on the altar of never-ending religious demands.

Free speech?

Free speech?

Opinion | Tue, 16 Jul 2013

The controversy arising from Rowan Atkinson's comic relief sketch back in March, in which he poked fun at the newly anointed Archbishop of Canterbury, has this month been cleared of breaking any broadcasting guidelines by Ofcom. However, it is a stark reminder of the precarious nature of free speech in the UK today — especially in instances where the subject of discussion is religion.

The controversy stems from the omission of the sketch on iPlayer of the comic relief show in response to the 2200 complaints received. When questioned on the absence of the sketch, the official response stated that the piece was problematic due to the 'subject matter' and the language used. It was pre-watershed so they '...took a swift decision to remove it from BBC iPlayer'. Given that the language issue could be neutralised by making use of the adult content warning on the iPlayer, one is forced to conclude the main reservation the corporation had was with the nature of the material.

Atkinson is no stranger to the fine line that humourists walk when working with potentially controversial subjects, in fact quite the opposite. He was an ardent critique of the Racial and Religious Hatred bill of 2006 becoming law. Recognising the curbs to freedom of expression it could have on satirists alone provided enough ground to be fearful on the wider social implications. Laying substance on his claims he cited sketches he himself had been involved with on programmes such as 'Not the Nine O'clock News' which could have been prosecuted if the bill had it been in law at the time. The self-censorship and restraint writers would be forced to employ could render religious institutions and beliefs immune to criticism or mockery, throwing the nation back to a time in which the enlightenment had simply never happened.

Such reservations were evidently felt in Parliament at this point as well, given that this was the third time in four years the government had tried to get such a piece of legislation though both houses. The bill itself sought to make an offence of inciting hatred of a person or community on the basis of their religion. While few would argue over the need to protect from and prevent the marginalisation and persecution of religious minorities, such a bill would clearly be detrimental to the nature of free speech within a healthy democracy, being described by Atkinson at the time as being akin to "using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut".

Any discussion over the point at which critical discussion, mockery and satire become bigotry and persecution is so evidently a mire of grey that one wonders how much faith to place in the way those required to enforce it would elect to. Set against the backdrop of the way in which Section 5 of the 1986 public order act was being readily invoked, a clause which outlawed harassing and/or causing alarm or distress to individuals or groups, such concerns were anything but groundless.

The infamous Section 5 clause, which has only very recently been revised, was being routinely used to make offences out of incident so innocuous they'd be laughable if they didn't carry such serious consequences. These include the arrest of an officers horse being called 'gay', and the case of a peaceful protester detained for holding a placard saying Scientology is a dangerous 'cult' — not that any complaints were raised about the sign by a member of the church, but an officer monitoring the protest who himself was not member of the faith saw fit to burden the insult he envisaged a member would have felt.

The point was in fact made at the time that both the Bible and the Qur'an would be in breach of the Religious Hatred bill if introduced, due to the incitement to violence various passages in each respective text demands of their followers. Such concerns, however, were ultimately rebuked as the Human Rights act of 1998 guarantees freedom of religion and self-expression, and accordingly any state encouragement to modify or omit any sacred texts would be in violation of this.

The bill ultimately became law in 2007, making a crime of anyone who "...uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred." with the apparently aforementioned exemption afforded to religious texts. Despite the campaign against the enactment failing, it did achieve an late amendment stating it could not be used to "prohibit or restrict discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents..." in order to safeguard the perceived threat critiques were concerned would arise.

In spite of even these protections however, discussions of a religious nature – even in private — were demonstrated to be delicate as two hoteliers found in 2009 for suggesting the Muslim veil is oppressive to women and the prophet Mohammed was a 'warlord'. However ignorant one may consider such comments, merely having a conversation to illuminate, discuss and challenge such views saw the hoteliers being questioned by the police for potentially violating the act.

Things aren't all bleak though. Since the Racial and Religious Hatred bill went on to become law Blasphemy was taken off the books in England and Wales, though it remains in force in Northern Ireland. The campaign to reform Section 5, which Rowan Atkinson was again outspoken on, was successful and the amendments will become law later this year. And, as mentioned, Ofcom ruled this month, after 'careful consideration', that his Comic Relief Archbishop sketch wasn't breaking any of the broadcasting guidelines. Of more immediate concern is that such conversations need to take place on these matters at all by the regulator, and the level of capitulation broadcasters sink to when they fear religious sensibilities have been offended.

While it is impossible to measure the effect the Racial and Religious Hatred Act then had, and now has, on artistic self-censorship, it is against such a backdrop Atkinson's Archbishop Comic relief sketch was delivered. Though offensive to some, to the extent that warranted a phone call to Ofcom, it was relatively tame by his own standards. For example when comparing it to 'The Church's position on fellatio' sketch this piece was somewhat subdued, though still a few notches up from the 'Four Weddings and a Funerals' bumbling vicar.

The question one may wonder is the extent to which Atkinson was being deliberately provocative with his air time? But, when a situation exists where a comedian dressing up in a costume and poking fun at a major English institution may run afoul of legal protections afforded to its sector of society, one ought to commend him for bringing to the fore the ridiculous predicament such ill-conceived legislation can give rise to.

New exhibition to tell the story of Leicester Secular Society

New exhibition to tell the story of Leicester Secular Society

News | Thu, 18 Jul 2013

A new exhibition is being planned to tell the story of Leicester Secular Society and its Hall through the 19th and 20th centuries.

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